Our introduction was looming. The cat seemed a bit ethereal as it slid between pockets of light & inky blackness, disappearing momentarily, only to reappear a couple feet nearer. The only way for certain I could tell it didn’t stop somewhere in the dark was that its grumbling purr grew steadily louder. Abruptly, the cat surged from the sharp edge of a deep shadow, startling a surprised “Eeep!” from me. This didn’t faze the cat a bit; it stopped about six inches from my toes & tucked its haunches comfortably beneath itself, tail tip twitching near its front paws. Its wide amber eyes held mine. Again, it pronounced quite precisely, “Mi-aow!” I could feel its rumbling breaths ruffling the hairs on my knuckles, which were still wrapped tightly around my legs.
I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have cats; the only cats I was even familiar with were the feral cats my grandma cared for around her home. Some were tame enough to pet & hold, but most were terrified of contact. My dad didn’t even like cats, so I was a little worried that this one was even in our yard. What should I do? I peeked at Mom & Dad again. They were smoking & talking, totally ignoring what was taking place a few feet away from them. I looked back at the cat & it regarded me patiently, unblinking, as if it had all the time in the world. It kept purring.
I slowly stretched out my left hand.
The cat didn’t move an iota when my trembling fingertips touched its forehead. Its only reaction was to close its eyes & – unbelievably – amplify even more its internal engine. I stroked its head & down its back, enthralled by the thick silky fur, but also shocked at how skeletal the cat felt beneath the luxuriant coat. When my hand reached the root of its tail, the cat stood & stretched. It opened its eyes & met my gaze as it stepped forward with clear purpose. I quickly folded my legs down into a crisscross style lap & the cat climbed in, circled once, & lay down with a contented sigh, purring heartily. I kept stroking the cat, but it was a while before I realized I was crying.
To my complete surprise, my parents took pity on the hungry cat & allowed me to adopt it. By the light of day, the cat looked even worse; not nearly so mysterious & much more ragged & unkempt. It was clearly starving & in need of loving care. Scabby & bony, but covered in the thickest, richest blue-gray coat I’d ever seen, with huge amber eyes; I also discovered that the cat was male, & unaltered. I bought him food, he got vaccinations & de-worming, & I fashioned a shelter for him against the side of the patio. I found a leather collar at a yard sale & a neighbor engraved his name on it: “Panther.” I officially had a cat.
Panther was one of those cats that made “regular cats” look bad. He was a true friend, a confidant, an unselfish spirit – unlike the majority of felines which demand servitude of humankind. Panther clearly enjoyed loving & being loved; he was simply a happy creature with a huge heart. He would race up & down the alley with me, for no reason but to run & play for the sheer joy in it. I could call him & if he could hear my voice, he would come, although sometimes it would take him almost half an hour to get home from wherever he was meandering… But he’d always race up the sidewalk in response to my call. He recognized sadness in me & would stick to me like a burr when he sensed it. I was never sure whether he was worried about me or if he was trying to comfort me, or perhaps a little of both. Panther never complained. He was happy someone cherished him & held him & told him secrets. He didn’t care that I couldn’t afford the most expensive food. He never bit anyone, he never scratched anyone; he just doled out his calming gaze & his hypnotic purr, letting his love pour over everyone he met. He was very unusual, but it was a wonderful unusual.
My upbringing & family life were difficult, at best, with an alcoholic father & an emotionally unstable mother. To further complicate matters, I was born prematurely & developed cerebral palsy (a form of brain damage that affects nervous, muscle, & motor functions) as a result. Throughout my childhood I wore an ugly, clunky leg brace, walked with a limp, & suffered petit mal epilepsy absence-type seizures. Worse, I grew-in some terribly crooked permanent teeth, & was painfully timid… And that was that. I was marked as an outsider; the kid to be shunned or teased. It didn’t help that due to the chaotic state of Mom & Dad’s marriage & my mom’s emotional fragility, which resulted in a few hospitalizations, that I was the “new kid” in three different schools during kindergarten alone. As I neared adolescence, I felt even more lost & alone. Thank God, one spring evening a feline ally stole into my life like a silver shade & salvaged my fragmented spirit; I was eleven & to this day, even though I know he needed a home as much as I needed a friend, I swear I got the better end of the bargain.
I can close my eyes & see it like it happened yesterday: It was a humid spring evening & I was sitting outside enjoying it with my parents. They were in lawn chairs & not arguing for once. I was sitting on the concrete patio watching moths & bats dogfight through the sulfuric glow of the street light across the street, sweeping my gaze over the oddly orange-tinted lawn, wishing for lightning bugs. Suddenly, from the gloomy black lip of the emptiness between our storage shed & the neighbor’s ramshackle, overgrown fence materialized a shy, sinuous form, frosted with pink where the street light danced upon it. Our porch light caught its eyes & set them afire as the hesitant animal made its winding way toward my parents’ voices; the eyes flashed wickedly bright, then dark as the creature blinked or turned its head. I was thrilled far beyond words, & sat hugging my bare knees, waiting to see what would saunter out of the gilded night to greet me.
The graceful little wraith came to a halt about fifteen feet away, still cloaked in shadows & its beaming, slit eyes looked more like cracks in a nuclear reactor than living eyes – which gave me a jolt of apprehension… Until I heard the unmistakable rumble of a cat’s contented purr filtering along the spring breeze. I hurriedly glanced up at Mom & Dad & saw that they were totally oblivious; with their folding lawn chairs angled another direction. I looked back at the cat & reached out a hand. I whispered the only thing I knew to say to a cat: “Here, kitty-kitty.” The cat responded immediately with a throaty, “Mi-aow,” rose fluidly & recommenced its trek toward me through the damp grass, this time with its kinked tail upraised. My initial anxiety melted away as the cat slipped from the darkness, proffering its vibrating purr before it through the air; reassuring me in the only way it knew that it meant no harm.